Starring: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters, David Wenham, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil
Rated PG-13 for Some Violence, A Scene of Sensuality and Brief Strong Language
As is the case with many a flawed film, "Australia" tries to be something but misses the mark. Director Baz Luhrmann wants his love letter to his home country to be a grand romantic epic in the tradition of "Gone with the Wind" (a film from which it occasionally steals) and "Titanic." However, while it's far from unwatchable, there's no denying that it rarely hits the sweet spot.
Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman) is a stuffy woman living in England going to Australia to wrap up a business deal. Her husband ran off to Down Under years ago and ran a successful cattle droving business, but lately that well has been running dry. Fed up, she travels there to sell the business to the local cattle baron, King Carney (Brown). Australia brings a series of shocks to her system: it's way rougher than a prim and proper English lady like her is expecting, and her husband has been murdered by a local Aborigine known as King George (Gulpilil). Lady Sarah quickly realizes that things aren't on the up and up when Carney's right hand man, a nasty brute named Fletcher (Wenham) is accuses him of committing the murder (and raping his mother), she refuses to sell and hires Drover (Jackman) to help her. Meanwhile, war is on the horizon.
Movies like this are hard to make well. The line between too subtle and overblown bore is a thin one, and Luhrmann doesn't really know what makes this sort of movie work. The Aussie director doesn't know the meaning of the word "subtlety" (he did, after all, direct "Moulin Rouge" and the version of "Romeo and Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes), and while subtlety isn't a necessary requirement of the genre, proper handling is. Luhrmann doesn't know what to do with the material (that may have something to do with the four credited screenwriters and rumored studio meddling). His talents, which are considerable, are an ill-fit for the material.
At least the acting is good, although considering the talent, that's nothing to be surprised about. Luhrmann brought back his leading lady from "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman, to play the lead. Kidman does what she can, but she's unable to save a screenplay that is so disjointed. Her co-star (who, along with the director, is a personal friend of hers), Hugh Jackman, is also good. However, he lacks the swagger and raw sexuality to pull this role off. But that could be the writing too. Brandon Walters (in his only film credit) is also effective as their surrogate child Nullah. If there are times when he gets too cute, it's because of the writing. Bryan Brown and David Wenham have no problem convincing us to hate their guts.
There's a lot going on in "Australia," but little of it actually works. Either due to the writing, Luhrmann's poor handling, or some combination of the two, the film is a jumbled mess of half-baked ideas and two-dimensional characters. The least successful elements are the Aboriginal magic, which is poorly explained and contrived. The droving plot, which takes up the majority of the film, isn't much better, mainly because Luhrmann fails to make it particularly engaging. The family-like relationship between Sarah, Drover and Nullah is the most affecting because it's well developed. Luhrmann's disdain for the treatment of the "Stolen Generation" (half-Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents to live among the whites) is evident but not hammered home. The film's three action scenes are nicely handled as well.
So it doesn't work. It's a shame, because when they do, movies like this are awe-inspiring. What a pity.